Lawyers attack draft guidance on belief systems

Charity Commission document is 'confusing', says Charity Law Association

The Charity Commission's draft guidance on public benefit and the advancement of moral or ethical belief systems is "confusing, inaccurate and unhelpful" and needs to be completely rewritten, according to the Charity Law Association.

The association, which represents about 900 charity lawyers, was responding to the Charity Commission's consultation on the guidance, which closed on 5 January.

It said the guidance, written to help secularist charities meet the public benefit test, sometimes unfairly imposed stricter standards than the commission's guidance on public benefit and the advancement of religion, the finalised version of which was published just before Christmas (Third Sector, 8 January, page 4).

However, the CLA working party, chaired by Francesca Quint QC, also concluded that it was not appropriate to treat the advancement of moral and ethical belief systems as equivalent to the advancement of religion because the former was not a recognised charitable purpose.

It said the guidance should be rewritten in its entirety to set out the valid charitable purposes that secularist charities might have, such as advancement of education or the "mental or moral improvement of man", and what they must then do to demonstrate public benefit. It said the guidance in its current form did not provide this information in a "simple, comprehensive and coherent manner."

The working party also pointed out that the "mental or moral improvement of man" was more likely to be pursued by religious charities, and that most humanists did not promote ethical belief systems and actively resisted creeds. "Most humanist and secular groups, therefore, do not meet the draft guidance's definition of a ‘moral or ethical belief system'," the CLA said. "Nonetheless, this guidance should be designed for them."

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